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Repealing Religious Freedom?

by Bob Mills



You may have seen this story on the news or online. Last week, city officials in Houston, TX, issued subpoenas demanding that five pastors turn over sermons, speeches, and other communications with their church members that dealt with issues including homosexuality, gender identity, or the city's mayor, who is openly lesbian.


On the surface, the issue appears to be about Houston's so-called "Bathroom Bill," an ordinance approved by city council that would, among other things, allow men to use public restrooms designated for women. A coalition of some 400 Houston-area churches has openly opposed the ordinance. The opposition included a petition that would put the issue on the ballot as a referendum.


The city's leadership responded to this opposition by issuing subpoenas to pastors and rejecting the petition; surprisingly transparent attacks on the First Amendment.


And that's the bedrock issue.


In its entirety, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."


With elegant simplicity, those 56 words have helped this country hold together for more than two centuries. They have provided the assurance that Americans could worship without interference from the state, that they could be openly critical of their elected officials without fear of retribution, and that they could work within the existing political framework to make changes to the system.


With breathtaking arrogance, Houston's leaders effectively have declared these constitutional protections null and void within their jurisdiction. Texas' attorney general observed their actions show "no regard for the very serious First Amendment considerations at stake." Reactions from around the country express similar concerns.


As I write this, the situation remains fluid. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that specializes in religious liberty cases, is defending the five pastors. The city's leadership has removed the words "sermons" from a revised version of the subpoena, although with the words "speeches" and "communications" left in place, that change doesn't seem to make much difference. And what is happening in Houston is hardly an isolated incident.


A column published several weeks ago in the Washington Post named 48 Senate Democrats who have supported a constitutional amendment that would basically put all political speech under government control. The proposed amendment reads in part: 


"Congress and the states may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections." Since such money is often spent on political speech, whether over the airwaves, on the Internet, or in print, the effect of the amendment would be to regulate free speech.


Paraphrasing another publication, this amendment, if approved, would mean that if you wrote "Mickey Mouse for President" on a piece of paper, paid a local copy service 10 cents to make a copy, then used a thumbtack to put that paid-for copy on a bulletin board, your action would be subject to Congressional approval.


As you read this, it's two weeks (or maybe less) until Election Day. Do you think those who want to limit the freedom of speech of their political opponents will stop there? The current situation in Houston offers an unsettling answer to that question.  


One of the pastors who received a subpoena ordering him to turn over "all communications with members of your congregation" said, "This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day,"


Theology Matters is committed to examining the cultural issues of our day from the perspective of a Christian worldview. And we are committed to supporting and encouraging our readers, whether pastors or lay people, to take actions that will make a difference in the culture and the Church. 


One action most, if not all, of our readers can take is to go the polls on November 4 and vote for candidates at all levels of government who will promise to defend actively, rather than attempt to repeal surreptitiously, the First Amendment. Another is to help raise awareness in your community and congregation about such assaults on our freedoms of religion and speech.


At the risk of sounding self-serving, one way to raise awareness would be to forward this e-mail to those who might also be alarmed by such assaults on the First Amendment. If you know individuals who might like to receive these e-mails, or our journal, encourage them get in touch with us. And if you (or they) could help us with financial support at this important time, we'd be grateful.


A well known quote attributed to the philosopher Edmund Burke aptly observes: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."


This Election Day, we have the chance to do something.


Bob Mills

Executive Director

Bob Mills
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